While a sizable contingent of metal fans know John 5 from his longtime gig as Rob Zombie’s ghoulishly flamboyant shred master, guitar enthusiasts have a broader picture of him — that of a deeply eclectic and prodigiously proficient player schooled in country, bluegrass, western swing, jazz and flamenco. Whether he’s peeling off hyperspeed chicken-pickin’ lines, replicating cascading banjo rolls, or dispatching immaculate, sweep-picked solos, there seems to be no end to his knowledge or skill set.
“I appreciate anything that’s done well,” John states. “You could be throwing knives or juggling bowling pins, and I’ll be amazed.
“But with music, it goes a lot further. If I hear a bluegrass player killin’ it, I’m like, ‘I have to play that!’ And if I hear a metal player rippin’ it, my brain just fries. So I have to learn what they’re doing and execute it perfectly. I obsess over it, and I love it dearly.”
Being a musical omnivore comes naturally to John 5. Born John Lowery, he started playing the guitar as a kid from watching country pickers Roy Clark and Buck Owens on TV’s Hee Haw variety show. He eventually took a shine to rock after hearing bands like Kiss and Van Halen. John admits that some of his fans might have more parochial tastes, but he takes delight in spinning their heads around. “They might come to my instrumental shows because they like what I do with Zombie,” he says. “But they’ll see me play some bluegrass licks, and they just go crazy. That makes me feel so good, because they’re seeing me for who I really am. I’m the guy who sits on my couch, watches TV and plays whatever I want.”
Which is precisely what he does throughout his latest full-length release, Invasion. It’s his 10th album overall but just the third credited to John 5 and the Creatures, the rhythm section consisting of bassist Ian Ross and drummer Logan Miles Nix. To say that it’s an elaborately mounted smorgasbord of different musical styles is an understatement. There’s DJ-tinged techno (“I Am John 5”), spacey prog-rock (“Zoinks!”), breakneck western swing (“Howdy”), bracing speed metal (“Midnight Mass”), exuberant funk-rock (the aptly named “I Want the Funk”) and traditional American folk (an impeccably played rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow”).
But there can be no overstating how fully John 5 inhabits and articulates each genre. The beauty of his playing doesn’t lie simply in his supreme technical prowess (and rest assured, every track features a lavish performance feast) but also in his deep-rooted adoration of the music itself.
“Everything on the record is stuff I love,” he says. “I’m just such a fan of music, and I really don’t see any boundaries at all. It’s good for my brain to play a lot of styles. I think it’s good for my overall well-being. And I just want to bring people along for the ride. To make a record of just one kind of music would be boring, so I mix it all up and I try to play it as well as I can. Some people have a formula, but I don’t. Or maybe I do: It’s all good.”
You started playing country music as a kid. How proficient were you before you discovered rock and metal?
Very. I was totally into it. I was way into Roy Clark and Buck Owens. And, of course, I loved Chet Atkins and other guys. That’s what was played in my house. My dad played it, and we loved it. That’s what I practiced as a kid. I would skip school, stay up late. It was practice, practice, practice. And I would keep at it until I had something down. Only after I had a piece perfect would I feel good about going to school.
Was it all by ear?
No. I would get tab and read music. I was really obsessive. I played so much as a kid that my left hand is bigger than my right. And I mean a lot bigger. It’s so strange. I think it was from stretching to get those chords and scales.
We know you for playing Telecasters, but what kinds of guitars were you playing as a teenager?
My first guitar was a black Magnum. That’s what I played to get going, but my first real guitar was a ’75 Strat. It was a good guitar, and I learned a lot on it. I actually met Stevie Ray Vaughan and had him sign it, but I sold the guitar to buy a Kramer. That was a bad decision, but you know, I was just a kid. I really wanted a Tele, though. I was seeing Buck Owens and all these guys playing beautiful Teles. I finally got one when I was about 15. I was so thrilled!
At what age did you start to figure out how to pair a guitar with the right amp?
Not till much later. I wasn’t really into amps. I just played. I knew Marshalls and Fenders were great, but I didn’t know why. If I could plug in and get some volume, that was good enough. I was just into practicing and learning.
The cleanliness and precision of your playing reminds me of Danny Gatton.
Oh, thank you! I love him.
There’s none of the reckless abandon — some would call it “sloppiness” — that even some of the finest rock players embrace.
Yeah, I’m not into that. You can still play with fire and be accurate. I made it my mission to get rid of the slop. I’ve always been an OCD clean freak, and that extends into all areas of my life. I want to keep my guitars clean, and I want my playing to be clean, too. If I play a line, I wanted it to sound like it’s all on one string. I want it that clean. I’ll play something a million times until I know it’s perfect. But I don’t want it to sound sterile. A guitar line should flow like water. Think of a classical violinist. That’s what I’m talking about.
Do you make allowances for how you play at different volumes?
You have to. I’ll practice something low when my wife and I are watching TV, but I notice that when I play the same solo for Zombie in a rehearsal room and I’ve got everything cranked, things sound different. Open-string runs don’t translate when they’re all distorted. And any time you play an arena, you know things are going to change because the acoustics are so echoey. A lot of times I have to change my solos around because the sound is going to bounce all over the place. I’m obsessed with things sounding perfect.
Speaking of which, your playing on “Howdy” is super-clean, fast and accurate. You do chicken pickin’, banjo rolls and shred runs. Was that one take?
[laughs] No, but it wasn’t more than five. I practiced that one a lot at home. I probably played it for two weeks straight before I recorded it. I didn’t want the producer to sit there and be like, “Ugh! Can’t he just knock it out?” So beyond the fact that I just wanted to play it well, I didn’t want to waste his time by making him wait for me to get it right.
Contrast that song with “Cactus Flower,” which is devoid of guitar showboating. It’s a simple, beautifully understated melody. Whether you’re picking or bending strings, you let each note ring out.
It just sounds so nice. Yeah, I do that behind-the-nut bending stuff that is usually done with an open tuning. When you’re bending strings, you have to be very precise to make a melody stand out. I’m really proud of that one, and I love how simple it is. It almost sounds like pedal steel, an instrument I love. I wanted to play pedal steel when I was a kid, but I didn’t because I knew that it wasn’t going to get me any girls.
Oh, so the truth comes out!
[laughs] Yeah, it’s the truth. I’m just being honest. Isn’t that crazy? I already knew that as a kid.
It’s a given that you played Telecasters on the album. But what about amps?
Just my Marshall JCM900s. Like I said, I’m not an amp guy. I know Marshall doesn’t want to hear this, but I’ll play through anything and it will just sound like me. We were doing a show at a huge amphitheater, and all of my amps went down on the ride over. People were freaking out, saying, “We go on in two hours!” I just said, “Give me anybody’s amp. It doesn’t matter. I’ll play through anything.” I was the only calm one.
How about effects?
My pedalboard is so simple, even a child could use it. Everything is Boss: a Super Chorus, Noise Suppressor, the DD-3 Delay... That’s about it. Oh, and I used a Dunlop wah pedal and an MXR Talk Box. I guess they count as effects, right?
We’ve talked a lot about your new album, but of course you continue to work with Rob Zombie. You two seem to have one of those perfect front-man/guitarist relationships. What’s your secret to achieving that?
I don’t know if it is a secret. I have such respect for Rob, and he has the same respect for me. I love his music and what he does. I’ve always been a fan of his. Writing songs with him and performing with him onstage has been such a joy. Whatever I can do to help make him sound as great as possible is my pleasure. I’ve been doing it for 15 years now, and each year has been so rewarding. But I don’t think it would work if we didn’t have that mutual respect for each other. He’s a great guy.
John 5 sings praises of the Fender Telecaster with seven sacred models from his massive collection.
Some people collect stamps. John 5 collects Fender Telecasters. Lots of them.
Over the years, he’s amassed an assemblage that includes more than 100 pieces, with a model representing each year, starting at the introduction of the instrument (the 1950 Broadcaster) and stretching to 1983. “I just love history, and I love Telecasters, so I have the best of both worlds,” he says. “I know a lot of people don’t want to hear this, but they’re great investments. Some folks know about stocks. I know about Telecasters.”
He admits that he’s regularly contacted by fans, musicians and vintage collectors looking to sell him Telecasters, but he cautions that he’s a tough customer. “Anybody can buy a bunch of guitars. It’s not that difficult,” he says. “The key is looking for the right guitar. How does it look? How does it feel and sound? Is it all original? All of those considerations go into the thrill of the hunt, and I don’t settle for second best.”
1950 FENDER BROADCASTER
“I did this little game in which you focus on something to make it come true,” John says. “That’s what happened with this guitar. You can get a Frankenstein Broadcaster if you look around, but I wanted the real deal — the genuine article. So I thought really hard about it, and that’s when I got a call from Norman at Norman’s Rare Guitars. He said, ‘I’ve got one for you.’
“This thing is so beautiful. It’s the Holy Grail. I’m a history buff, and I love that this is the very first production model of the solid-body guitar. This is like Lincoln’s hat. It’s so magical — its feel, its sound. And it’s light as a feather. I’ve never picked up a guitar so light. It’s completely original — the only thing that’s been changed is the strings. I never take it on the road with me, but I love to play it. It’s on ‘Cactus Flower,’ from the new album.”
1952 FENDER ESQUIRE
“I love Esquires because of Keith Richards. The minute I saw him play one, I knew I had to have one, too. Plus, a lot of cowboy players in the ’50s played them. They were less expensive than Telecasters, though I’m not sure why. They’re incredible guitars — beautiful sound, great feel. This one came into my life in early 2000. I had been looking around for an Esquire, and boom, there it was. That’s the thing about the thrill of the hunt: You have to be willing to put the time in, but once you score, it’s so satisfying.
“This guitar is a little yellowed, so that means it was out of its coffin for a while. But that’s the only thing that’s changed about it. It’s original, right down to the case. I’ll play it around the house, and sometimes I’ll use it on a track when I record at home. It’s great for bluegrass or western swing. I don’t like to travel with it. God forbid I get into a car accident. I treat these guitars like they’re Fabergé eggs.”
1953 FENDER TELECASTER
“For a while there, it got to the point where I didn’t want to buy any guitars that weren’t from the West Coast, because the weather in other parts of the country can kill them. I don’t think this guitar ever saw daylight. Whoever owned it must have left it in its case for decades. It looks like it just came off the assembly line. It’s very bright in color; there’s no hint of a change in its appearance at all. With a lot of these Teles, their color starts to mellow and turns into something that looks like butterscotch. Nothing of the sort with this one.
“This is another dream guitar that I was lucky to acquire. Of all the blackguards, it’s probably the nicest. I got it from Norm. There was a period when he would get an awesome Tele in, and he knew who to call. I was probably his first call with the Teles. He knew how much I loved them and that I treated them like the treasures they are.”
LAVA LAMP GUITAR
“I was doing an autograph session at a NAMM show, and this guy named Ken Meyer approached me and said he wanted to make me a guitar. I told him, ‘I’m a Fender endorser, so that’s all I ever play.’ And he was like, ‘That’s okay. I can make you whatever you want. I’ll make a Tele-style guitar.’ So I said, ‘All right. Can you make me a lava lamp guitar?’ As I said it, I thought he would say no, but he said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’
“He seemed so confident, which I liked, and when the guitar arrived, I realized that he was also competent. Ken is a retired firefighter from Michigan. He figured out on his own how to put this green goo inside the guitar and make it float. I was knocked out. This thing is amazing! But when I took the guitar to Europe, all of the goo froze, because it was wintertime. So I said, ‘Why don’t we put antifreeze in it?’ It’s still green, you know? So that’s my contribution.”
FENDER TELECASTER GOLD NUMBER ONE GUITAR
“This is my guitar. It’s so important to me, maybe more than the Broadcaster. It’s my whole world, my life. It’s always with me. I buy it a seat on a plane so that it can sit beside me. I designed it with Alex Perez at Fender, and it turned out better than I could have imagined. I wanted a Shoreline Gold guitar. We actually did a Squier version of it that sells very well.
“But this one is my baby. I play it so much, and I pick so hard that the pickguard is actually wearing off. There’s a big indent in it; it’s starting to look like Willie Nelson’s Trigger, which is all worn out. But I don’t want to replace the pickguard. I’ll keep playing it till there’s nothing left. I play every show with this guitar. It’s the best.”
“I love Kiss. I was so into Ace Frehley and the guitar he played on the Dynasty tour — the one that would light up. So I asked Ken Meyer, who built the Lava Lamp guitar, if he could make me an LED guitar. And sure enough, he did.
“You might think that a guitar like this would be a novelty and that it wouldn’t play well, but this thing is incredible. It plays beautifully and sounds awesome. Ken is something else. I told him, ‘Dude, I can get you a job anywhere you want making guitars. Come to Hollywood! I’ll hook you up. You’re brilliant.’ But he said, ‘Ah, I think I’d rather fish.’ That’s the way real geniuses are. They do what they do, but they’re not like other people.”
CUSTOM WHITE GHOST FENDER TELECASTER
“Supreme Clothing Co. did this collaboration with Fender, and they made an all-white Telecaster. I was like, ‘I want a white Tele like that, but I want it with red binding.’ Fender did such a phenomenal job. The whole neck is white. Everything is white, except for the red pickups, red binding and red kill switch. It’s a jaw-dropper.
“This one is a pretty new acquisition, but I’ve come to really love it. It’s a monster, and because it’s white we call it the Ghost. I use it all the time — live, in the studio. It’s all in the wood, man. Fender really puts this stuff together well. I love doing Squier or Mexican Fenders because I want people to be able to afford them. I think we’re going to do a Squier version of this.”